The history of Christian celibacy is more complicated than we’d like to think.
Lately, Christians have cast their minds and social media musings back to the early church on the topics of singleness and sexuality. Much of the conversation centers on past spiritual practices of celibacy and claims about what early church leaders taught about singleness.
Some suggest that early church leaders enthusiastically ‘tore down’ the centrality of marriage within the church. Others argue that the way we understand the (so-called) “gift of singleness” today is a direct inheritance from apostles and the church’s earliest centuries.
As a history nerd, practical theologian, and never-married Christian woman, I may not agree with every supposition, but I’m delighted by the revitalized discussion about how we can see ancient ideas about singleness in a new light. After all, church history is our history, and this ancient era is ripe with fascinating insights (and quite a few conundrums) about singleness—many of which are still relevant to discussions on faith and church life today.
The lessons we can learn from the ancient church about singleness are many and mighty, but they are neither simple nor straightforward. In fact, early church leaders do not offer us a singular narrative about being single. However, when we examine the Christian history of celibacy on its own terms, the conversation yields something far more complex and interesting.
So what does it look like for us to approach this past honestly?
First, a proper historical methodology involves observing the details and nuances of the past, rather than painting it with broad brush strokes.
We must keep in mind that the early church era spanned almost 500 years and multiple continents. In that time and space, there was a great …